To Flip or Not to Flip?

A Harvard professor no longer thinks students benefit from skipping lectures for his rigorous course. Experts weigh in on what his decision says about the flipped classroom and other alternative learning approaches.

September 13, 2017

The Harvard computer science professor David J. Malan has reversed course on his recommendation from last year that the 800 students in his CS50 course skip attending most of the semester’s lectures in person. Malan argued at the time that students could be just as successful, if not more, by watching recorded lectures online at their convenience, and he maintains that student outcomes didn’t vary between face-to-face and asynchronous learners.

But Malan now says some of last year’s students reported feeling that something was missing outside of the classroom, and he thinks students lose out on an essential component of the academic experience if they opt for the online lectures.

Malan's reversal prompts several questions, so Inside Digital Learning posed them to a panel of experts: Do you share the Harvard professor’s sense that online lectures alone can’t entirely replace the unique qualities of a classroom experience? Do his comments represent an indictment of the “flipped classroom” approach, or are they representative of a more specific setback? If a professor at one of the elite universities teaching one of the most sought-after courses reports difficulties in transitioning online, what challenges does that pose for similar course structures going forward? 

Here's what the experts had to say.

Yakut Gazi, associate dean of learning systems, professional education, Georgia Institute of Technology and Stephen W. Harmon, associate dean of research and professional education; director of education innovation, Center for 21st Century Universities; professor, College of Design; Georgia Institute of Technology 

Online lectures alone do not a flipped classroom make. Nor, for that matter, do lectures alone, either online or face-to-face, comprise an optimal learning experience. Learning is best facilitated by a combination of instructional events, including content presentation such as the lecture, as well as practice, feedback, and about six others. Any one of these events alone is insufficient for the most efficient and effective learning experience.

In flipped classes, the passive elements of instruction – the lower levels of learning – are moved to outside of class, which creates opportunities for in-class time to be used for active learning experiences such as teamwork, problem solving, hands-on experiences that tap into higher thinking skills. Typically, this approach has recently been translated into recording lectures for student consumption outside of class. While much emphasis has been put on the production of these lectures, data-driven approaches and best practices on what needs to take place inside the classroom are rare. What makes flipped learning successful is not just content. The following three elements are essential for the success of flipped classrooms: learning analytics systems that feed information and insights to the faculty member about students’ consumption of the lecture content; instructor’s action on this insight to address misconceptions and provide clarifications; and what replaces the lecture, instruction, or passive elements of the classroom. This latter is a critical element to which not much attention is paid.

Flipped classrooms offer notable benefits, including flexibility, student engagement, and opportunity for the development of “whole person” skills such as autonomy, communications, teamwork, and problem solving, among others. Of particular note, traditional lecture classes support a transmission model of education that works best for learning outcomes on the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy. To reach more complex learning outcomes, student engagement and higher learning skills are needed, which flipped classrooms support.

It’s important to note that social aspects and the context of learning are also an essential part of the learner experience. At Georgia Tech, we engage teams of instructional designers and video production professionals to ensure that we make the best use of the methodologies and tools we have at our disposal to deliver a comprehensive online learning experience that goes beyond mere presentation of content. We encourage students in creating their own learning communities. Our learning environments have affordances for students to collaborate and build robust networks to enrich their learning experiences.

Successful flipped classes are more work to develop than traditional classes. Apart from requiring learning design professionals to produce them, flipped classes also demand larger front-end engagement from faculty. Students and faculty, who are not accustomed to the flipped model, may need time to get used to this way of learning and teaching. In addition, students may need a greater degree of self-discipline and organizational skills than they do in traditional classes to benefit fully from flipped classes.

Jonathan Rees, professor of history, Colorado State University -- Pueblo

Last year, when Harvard Computer Science Professor David J. Malan decided to encourage his CS50 students to watch his lectures online, he told them that this was the result of going “back to first principles, rethinking every aspect of the course’s design, taking no feature for granted.”  This is a laudable step to take, but now that Malan has changed his mind one can’t help but wonder whether he rethought every aspect of his course quite hard enough.

Today’s education technology can do so much more than present taped lectures.  It can change classroom dynamics by restructuring interactions between professors and their students.  It can even eliminate the need for a set meeting time, since learning can occur asynchronously now.  It can also greatly expand the audience for the work that students do.  

Flipping the classroom by taping your lectures and letting students watch them online may be just about the most conservative use of education technology available today.  It seems unlikely that someone has completely rethought every aspect of their course if it’s still centered around lectures.  Preserving the basic information-presentation method of the old course but displaying it in a new setting retains all the problems with lectures without adding all that much to the pedagogical equation.  The student’s ability to rewind the “tape” and listen to their professor again is more than offset by the natural inclination to open a new tab in their browser and start checking Facebook, because nobody is watching them to be sure that they’re paying attention.

Faculty who are interested in education technology should consider redesigning everything about their classes – including its goals and structure – rather than just trying to recreate different features of existing face-to-face courses in an online environment.  In 2015, I wrote that the flipped classroom was “professional suicide,” because it opened up faculty to being replaced by technologies which they do not control.  I still believe that.  However, there are now more than enough good tools available for faculty to tear their classes down and build them back up in a digital environment without making themselves obsolete in the process.  The key is that faculty themselves must be the ones to decide which tools work for them and their students and which ones don’t.  

Don’t change your whole approach to teaching just because it’s suddenly the hip thing to do.  Do some research on new digital tools, both commercial and open source, then change your approach to teaching if you think some combination of those tools will help you design a better educational experience for your students.  The real shame about flipped classrooms isn’t necessarily the effect on the educational experience provided by the faculty who flip them, it’s that all the publicity they’ve received might convince reluctant faculty that flipping is the only strategy that education technology has to offer.

Robert Talbert, associate professor of mathematics, Grand Valley State University; scholar-in-residence, Steelcase

Harvard's CS50 course has an issue with attendance, as reported at Inside Higher Ed. At the center of the issue is whether online lectures can truly replace the classroom experience. The answer is: It depends. Specifically, it depends on what the "classroom experience" is.

A classroom experience that consists of direct instruction can be, and has been, replaced with online video, with CS50 as a highly visible example. And perhaps such an experience should be replaced. The professor for CS50, David Malan, is exactly right in his assessment of live lecture: There's something to be said for shared experiences, but in terms of actually learning things, students need more than the "energy of the crowd". They need to be able to access lectures on their own schedules, at their own pace, in their own contexts.

Above all, for real learning to take place, students need active experiences. By "active", we mean more than just asking questions in a lecture and taking notes. We mean participation in tasks that are at the edge of students' basic knowledge of a topic, causing students to stretch and encounter real difficulties that are best resolved with other people. Lecturing has a valuable role to play: It can inspire students, create connections, and provide perspective. But it cannot do the heavy lifting of learning. In the end, only students can do this.

The kind of classroom experience that cannot be replaced by online video places this kind of serious, difficult active learning at the heart of its design. In such a class, the group context is used for student work on tasks centered on application, evaluation, synthesis, and creativity --- tasks where students need each other, and need us professors, the most. Lectures, as I said, still have a place in this kind of course, and they are put in a position where they will do the most good for the greatest number of students: Online, available on demand, and out of the way of active learning.

Harvard's CS50 was described as "a very public version of flipping the classroom". Is CS50 an indictment of this pedagogical concept? No, because CS50 isn't a true flipped learning environment. As I've written elsewhere, flipped learning classes do more than just shift lecture from in-class to pre-class: They transform the group context into a time and place focused on the active learning described above. Without this transformation, it's not flipped learning, and it's hard to see why students would come to class at all.

I have great respect for what Prof. Malan and his team have done with CS50. The challenge for him and for all of us is to find ways to use our scarce class time to the students' maximum benefit through active learning. If we build it, they will come.


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